Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) maintains a strong legacy of research that can accelerate social change. Building on that, Kates teaches and practices participatory research—which is research that actively involves multiple groups of stakeholders on the issues being examined. Whenever possible, she includes representatives of the low-income women she’s studying.
The Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network mentioned in this interview is comprised of researchers; state legislators and/or their aides; personnel from the Department of Corrections and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security; representatives of the Department of Public Health (which administers the state’s substance abuse services); the Office of Probation and Community Corrections; women’s commissions; women’s shelters; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups; and formerly incarcerated women.
For years you’ve studied issues affecting women in the justice system. Why are you now focusing on alternatives to incarceration?
This is of great concern because the number of women in prison has escalated exponentially in the last four decades— and because of the extraordinarily negative effects of incarcerating women.
When a woman goes into prison, a local jail, or house of correction, which may be just for pretrial detention before there’s any determination about guilt, the impact on her family is much more dramatic and negative than it would be for a man. Often her children are immediately displaced, and she may lose her job and/or welfare benefits, any connections she may have to therapy or training, and her eligibility for public housing. A man going to jail generally leaves his children with their mother, and when he’s released, it may be easier for him to get housing somewhere. Most important, a mother going into jail devastates the family connection. For both men and women involved in the criminal justice system, family connections are one of the most important motivators for changing their lives. But in the case of incarcerated women, many families simply don’t visit the women. When I interviewed women in prison in Massachusetts in 2006 for one of my research studies, I discovered that during their incarceration, half the women did not have any visits from their children. The fact that children did not visit their mothers is particularly ironic in Massachusetts, because of the small size of the state. Also, children who are under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families are expected to be taken to see their mother once a month by a social worker, but this does not always happen.
What about effects on women just from living in prison?
It’s important to understand who these women are. About 85 percent of them are non-violent offenders. Most incarcerated women are substance abusers. And many have mental health problems—two-thirds of the women in the Massachusetts state prison have a diagnosed mental illness—and half of them are on psychotropic drugs. So if you compound the substance abuse with the mental illness, which is often exacerbated by being in prison, and the fact that these women have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives, you wonder why some of these women are in prison rather than receiving treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders.
The environment of the justice system can trigger fear, letting emotion take over rational thinking. For a woman who has suffered physical abuse and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), waiting with others, including men, in a probation office may make her feel very threatened and unsafe. So when she meets with her probation officer, she may find it difficult to sit down or listen to what’s being said, or be able to respond in a focused manner. As a result, the officer may report that she was “off-the-wall,” “inattentive,” or “not interested.”
Another example of when a situation in prison might trigger PTSD or memories of abuse is when a woman needs to take a shower. Often she is escorted to the showers by a male guard in handcuffs, wearing a cotton cover-up—that’s a triggering situation.
I’ve done this research over many years. In the 1980s, corrections officers said, “I hate to work with women,” and in the 2010s I still hear, “I hate to work with women.” The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at WCW has spearheaded work in this area, in developing the relational-cultural model of therapy, on which the current “trauma-informed” approach is based.
How many women in the United States are incarcerated?
The average daily population of women in prison is roughly 211,000—about ten percent of the total U.S. prison population. This number has increased four to five times from two or three decades ago—the average daily population of women in prison in the 1980s was 15,000. And if prisoner turnover during the year is taken into account, upwards of a million women are incarcerated annually. On top of that, about a million women are under community supervision, probation, or parole. Yet, despite this growth and the different circumstances and backgrounds of women, most correctional officials and policymakers still give short shrift to women’s concerns.
In terms of children, it’s impossible to know how many are affected by women’s incarceration. In the U.S., states do not record how many children a woman or any offender has. Most state agencies can’t tell you the number of children in care—or under its supervision in one form or another—because a parent is in prison. To estimate how many children are involved, I use a standard figure of 2.3 children per inmate mother. Almost every study has come up with the fact that about three-quarters of the women in prison have children. Most of them are single parents, and about two-thirds of them had custody before they went into prison.
All this is in the context of our mass incarceration society. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at huge expense. In 2012, the U.S. average daily population of men and women in federal and state prisons and local jails was 2.4 million. And in studies of this vast population, women continue to be overlooked.
You said many families don’t visit their women in prison. Why is that?
One reason is the visiting policies of the facilities. In looking at policies and practices that help or hinder family connections, I checked whether prisons had child-friendly playrooms, whether they provided toys, or whether they allowed snacks, and I found that these were very limited. The resources that actually encourage a good environment for visiting were very few.
Other reasons are emotional. Sometimes the children’s caregivers, who are often the mothers of the incarcerated women, are really angry with them. Also, it’s very, very painful for women to see their children and then say goodbye to them at the end of the visit.
Another major problem is distance. Women’s state prisons are usually very isolated, with no direct transport. That’s certainly true of the Massachusetts women’s prison at Framingham— where each year the prisoners include more than 3,000 women who are held pretrial, because there’s no room for them in their local jails. And many more women, who’ve already been sentenced to very short terms for minor offenses and misdemeanors, are serving their times in the Framingham prison because there’s no room for them locally. In fact, five Massachusetts counties do not hold women at all. There are no men who face that situation, and no men held in pretrial detention outside their county, away from their communities. I think that’s one of the most grievous disparities in the treatment of men and women.
I’ve asked a lot of sheriffs why they’re not housing women. The answer’s always the same: “The male population expanded, so we had to shut down the women’s unit and house the men there.” In fact, in the fall of 2013, the authorities nearly closed the regional Federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, because they needed the space for men. Women from the entire Northeast sentenced to Federal prison would have been moved to somewhere in the South, and families would have needed to travel one or two thousand miles to see them. That produced an outcry. Several of us, including some very prominent people like retired Judge Nancy Gertner, who is now teaching at Harvard Law School, wrote letters to the newspapers on behalf of the women, and the plan was dropped, at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, my overall critique is: there’s still too much emphasis on prison, and not enough on alternatives to incarceration. Even the literature on justice-involved women is still heavily focused on prison; and there are very few studies of alternatives to incarceration that highlight or even mention women.
Tell us about the Massachusetts women’s justice network and the alternatives to incarceration you are exploring.
Previously called the Women in Prison Coalition, it was renamed the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network when we decided we really should focus on alternatives to incarceration. We needed to engage a much poader network, not just people delivering services to women in prison but other agencies and advocacy groups. [See list in introduction.] In early 2013 I conducted a survey of the members, and identified two priorities on which we would base an action platform. The first is bail reform, focused on the pretrial detention of women who can’t make—or are denied—bail. The second is the practice of sending women to the state prison when their substance abuse makes them a danger to themselves or others. One way to obtain immediate detoxification and treatment is by applying to the courts for a civil commitment, or Massachusetts Section 35. This permits a woman to be held for up to 90 days in a detox and treatment center in New Bedford, MA. If it is full, women are sent to the state prison in Framingham, MA, where detox services are provided, but they offer no follow-up treatment.
What are the problems about bail in women’s pretrial detention?
To get some basic data, which aren’t readily available, I contacted individual Massachusetts county houses of corrections, the Department of Corrections, and the courts, and learned that about 3,000 women are held pretrial each year in the state prison alone, many of them women from the counties who hadn’t posted bail. Eighty percent couldn’t make bail of $2,000 or less and a third couldn’t make $500 or less. The rest had been refused bail for a variety of reasons.
When you’re held pretrial, you haven’t been found guilty and your case hasn’t had a disposition, so you can’t be classified. If you’re a women being held in prison because your county has no space for you, you’re not allowed any programming—such as education or treatment—that is available to people who’ve actually been sentenced to prison. Meanwhile, you’re at a great distance from your family and the local bail commissioners who might provide bail, and you may be there an average of 60-77 days before your trial is held. And all those losses—the displacement of your children, your housing, employment have to be dealt with, even if your case is eventually dismissed or continued without a finding.
What about the network’s other priority—women sent to prison because their substance abuse makes them a danger to themselves or others?
These are women who are not considered offenders but have life-threatening drug problems and have been referred to court, usually by themselves or family members, for civil commitment under Massachusetts’s Section 35, in order to get detoxification and recovery treatment quickly. The state now has a Women’s Addiction Treatment Center an hour outside of Boston that provides detox and then a graduated series of transitional support services, family involvement, and housing referrals. The problem is that when the Center is full, these women are sent to the state prison where detox is provided, but afterwards they get no treatment because they’re not yet classified.
How does the network take action on behalf of its priorities?
The first action was to produce two piefing notes—single sheets summarizing the concerns, providing numerical data, and including recommendations. Briefing Note #1 addressed Civil Commitments, and #2 addressed Pretrial detention and Bail processes.
We also formed a subcommittee to ping national pretrial- service experts here to talk to Massachusetts policy experts about bail reform. Bail should be used only to assure that someone shows up for trial, and there’s a movement in some states to actually abolish it for someone who is not considered dangerous and is judged highly likely to appear in court. A woman judged very likely to appear can be released on her own recognizance, and then reminded that she has a court appearance. Typically now, there is no reminder in the whole court process of when someone’s court date is. And for people with substance abuse, or mental health problems, or very chaotic lives, some way of reminding them makes sense. We wanted to show the state of this particular way of thinking.
So we pought in two experts who spoke to about 150 people—legislators, judges, the Criminal Justice Commission, defense attorneys, and more—in five separate presentations over two days. One of our presenters was a national expert from the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency. The other was a woman from Maine who uses a short assessment tool to decide who is not at risk of failing to appear. Then she does a more detailed intake discussion and determines whether there are other services that could be offered, and refers the person for those services. So when that woman appears for her court case, she may have found a job or a better home situation, or she’s taking parenting classes or is in a recovery program. If so, the disposition of the case is far more likely to be positive and she is less likely to be sent to prison. Research has shown that people who come off the street rather than out of jail for their court appearances get lighter sentences.
So all the policymakers and others attending these events heard about states that have already moved ahead in this area. Very often, change occurs only when people get a sense that others are already trying something.
Can you give us more detail about some possible alternatives to incarceration?
Alternatives to incarceration range from programs entirely outside the criminal justice system—early diversion to mental health or substance abuse programs or psychological counseling—to much more effective probation. Probation can be a wonderful connection between a woman and someone who can support her, but very often it’s not like that at all. There are some specialized community-corrections offices, which I would like to see become much more women-focused.
In England there are women’s centers offering supportive services, usually not residential, where “vulnerable” women—who may or may not be involved with the justice system—receive their services in a single, very women-friendly center. There’s a lot of peer support and comradeship. Relationship building, including with staff, is the successful piece for women, in all of the programs, combined with real and tangible resources.
I’ve actually seen some of that in a recovery house near Boston. And there are some good residential centers, too; they’re all in the substance abuse recovery field rather than corrections. But there’s a real shortage of these, too. Now we’re having this recognized drug epidemic in Massachusetts that’s putting a lot of focus on how serious the problem is and may help expand the treatment for substance abuse. The Wellesley Centers for Women awarded me a grant to take a closer look at the backgrounds and circumstances of women who are admitted to substance abuse resources to learn more about their involvement with the justice system.
Alternatives to incarceration are not yet a well-developed field, even among all the experts on women. We need to find a way to institutionalize expertise on the subject. There’s no current data on women-centered work like ours that may be happening in other states. I have a Wellesley College student working with me this summer looking for other organizations like our network, because I’d like to see some communication and cooperation established. I’d love to see a fully funded center that would look at these issues.
Are there any data to demonstrate that alternatives to incarceration and bail reform have any economic benefits to society?
They’re all much more cost-effective than imprisonment. There’s plenty of data to compare the costs of imprisonment with the costs of providing people with residential services, saving on foster care, and so on. In Massachusetts, annual costs per inmate are $48,000, compared to probation costs of between $1,300 and $4,700 per person. Some states are spending as much for prisons as for public education.
The good news for those of us who are seeking policy change is that at last mass incarceration in the U.S.—including its huge financial costs—has caught public attention. In 2013, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, gave at least three speeches about changes that need to be made in policy, and there are eye-opening books on the subject. Clearly, policy-makers and scholars still give way too little attention to the particular problems for women in the justice system, but the general direction appears to be forward. It will take a lot of hard work, though to make the case that the costs for women and families are huge and multigenerational, and that we need to pay a lot more attention to women.